Writing the Good Fight: Teen Characters With Cancer

flickr image by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget

Writing about cancer can be challenging, making even the most confident author nervous and even uncomfortable. It’s a private subject for some, and in our attempts to be sensitive and supportive, it’s difficult to know what to say and what not to say unless you’ve personally experienced the disease in one of its countless terrible forms.

Enter John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a heart-wrenching novel featuring teens with cancer that’s more than that. While the disease plays a major role in the book, it’s not the focus of the story, and while characters Hazel Grace and Gus are afflicted with cancer, it doesn’t define them or their abilities. In any other writer’s hands, a novel about cancer-stricken teens may have delved into tearful sentimentality, but Green gives his story and cover for The Fault in Our Starscharacters, particularly Hazel, the strength, wit, and humor to be both brutally honest and realistic about her slim chances of survival.

When Hazel Grace states that “cancer books suck,” I was intrigued by her declaration. What books could exist in her fictional world that merit such a harsh assessment? More to the point, what books about teens dealing with cancer are available for readers like you and me? John Green isn’t the first young adult author to tackle writing about the disease, but he’s certainly set the bar high in terms of depicting an honest, realistic portrayal of it. What follows are titles that show that cancer books do not suck.

Before I Die by Jenny Downham: Sixteen-year-old Tessa is dying of leukemia, so to better appreciate her limited remaining time, she stops her treatments and creates a list of things she’d like to experience before she dies.

Side Effects by Amy Goldman Koss: When Izzy Miller wakes up one morning to discover her glands are swollen, she realizes she’s sick. What was thought to be mono turns out to be lymphoma, turning the 15-year-old’s normal life upside down.

A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry: In her poignant first novel, Lowry, recipient of the 2007 Margaret A. Edwards Award, tells the story of siblings Meg and Molly. Although Meg doesn’t often see eye-to-eye with her older sister Molly, she still admires her, and the two are inseparable. When Molly’s sudden nosebleeds are diagnosed as symptoms of acute myeloid leukemia, Meg comes face-to-face with the certainty that her sister will be dead by summer’s end.

Deadline by Chris Crutcher: At his yearly physical, eighteen-year-old Ben Wolf learns that he has a rare and incurable form of leukemia and that he has a year to live. Telling no one, including his family, Ben refuses treatment and decides to cram an entire lifetime of experiences into one year, including playing football and dating the beautiful Dallas Suzuki. Both heart-warming and heart-breaking, Crutcher‘s story illustrates the importance of doing what you love every single day.

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick: Average eighth-grader Steven Alper is a superb drummer, but after his 5-year-old brother Jeffrey is diagnosed with leukemia and his parents all but forget about him, Steven pours himself into his drumming and discovers that even an unexpected tragedy can have welcome outcomes. After Ever After picks up Jeffrey’s story several years later when he’s in eighth grade and in remission.

The Probability of Miracles by Wendy Wunder: Cynical 16-year-old Cam Cooper has been battling neuroblastema for seven years, and while she knows that her life is nearing its end, her mother moves them to Promise, Maine, where miracles are known to happen. There, Cam learns about life, death, and what it means to feel truly alive.

Holding at Third by Linda Zinnen: In order to better treat his older brother’s bone cancer, 13-year-old Matt Baiter’s family moves to a new town. Angry about being uprooted and afraid that his brother might die, Matt confronts his feelings with the help of his baseball coach.

I’m Not Her by Janet Gurtler: Sisters Tess and Kristina are nothing alike–Tess is shy, and Kristina is outgoing–but when Kristina is diagnosed with an aggressive form of bone cancer and may lose her leg as a result, Tess finds herself the center of unwanted attention and the glue that holds her family together.

Other titles of note include Never Eighteen by Megan Bostic, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork, Just One Wish by Janette Rallison, The Girl Next Door by Selene Castrovilla, Catcher, Caught by Sarah Collins Honenberger, Breathless and the Dawn Rochelle series by Lurlene McDaniel, and Secret Vampire by L.J. Smith.

While the list above is not comprehensive, it includes books that feature teens dealing with cancer in their own ways: with humor, honesty, anger, and wisdom. Whether you find them inspirational, depressing, or both, they remind us that it’s how we deal with life’s triumphs and tragedies that define who we are.

— Audrey Sumser, currently reading From What I Remember by Valerie Thomas and Stacy Kramer

6 thoughts on “Writing the Good Fight: Teen Characters With Cancer”

  1. The character’s names need to be reversed in the above review about the Sonnenblick books. It’s Jeffrey who has cancer and Steven who’s the older brother. I used “After Ever After” in my battle of the books this winter and the middle school students loved it; the teachers too. There’s a lot of humor in this one plus state testing gets slammed.

  2. Thanks for the catch, Kris! After editing and proof reading, something still felt off, and now I know what that something was. :)

  3. Thanks, Tessa! I appreciate your feedback. Your review at crunchings and munchings is great! (And thanks for the link; I’ll add it to my required reading.). :)

  4. My guess was that “cancer books” referred to Lurlene McDaniel and Nicholas Sparks, both very widely available and McDaniel’s books have been around for decades. The books on your list might pass the “doesn’t suck” test.

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